Loads of gardening articles and books proclaim that it is easy to grow herbs indoors however it is my experience, and I bet it’s yours too, that most herbs are fine during the summer months but many take a real beating towards the last half of winter. The conditions inside a typical apartment or house during the winter months are just not very conducive to picky plants. If you’re like me you’re probably doing most of your indoor gardening around south-facing windows that are cold and drafty above with the occasional blast of mega-hot and dry baseboard heating from below. Trying to keep finicky sweet basils and rosemary alive between these two extremes is too much for my self-esteem and my sanity so I’ve opted to accept that the tricker herbs are out until spring and have spent the last few years seeking out and experimenting with herbs that can hack these bipolar conditions.
I was given a cutting of Broadleaf thyme (Coleus amboinicus) last summer with the promise that it would root easily and grow like crazy. It has delivered and more! Broadleaf thyme is an unbelievably fragrant, low-growing herb with succulent, broad leaves and a soft, velvety texture. It goes under several names (more on that below) including Cuban oregano, Spanish oregano, and Indian borage but is unlike any thyme or oregano plant (or borage for that matter) you have ever seen. The plant is a tropical perennial and will not survive a cold winter outdoors, but taking a cutting or two to grow in a pot is as easy as snipping off a chunk with a pair of scissors and popping it into some water or moist soil. I offered mine nothing but neglect in the beginning, forgetting about it amidst a boatload of other gardening duties and it STILL grew and flourished. This plant is definitely a trooper!
Grow It: I have found that mine seems to do well in the sunniest spot available. The leaves are still a tad too pale which indicates that it can withstand more direct light. I’ve been growing mine in a standard tropical potting soil with a bit of sand thrown in for extra drainage and a touch of vermicompost at potting time for added nutrition. Like most herbs I add water only when the soil is just dry. Reduced winter light might cause the plant to grow leggy (tall and unhealthy) so be sure to pinch back the top set of leaves (you can use your fingers) every once and while to encourage a bushier growth. Unlike many herbs it will not go dormant so you can keep harvesting the leaves all year long.
Using: Broadleaf thyme has an exceptionally pungent flavor and smell. It is most commonly chopped up fresh and added to black beans or served with fish dishes and curries. I have also heard that it is commonly used in Jamaican jerk seasonings and salt cod. It is used to flavor beer and wine in India and some people put its antibacterial and fungicidal actions to work as a medicinal tea. I tried it this way and didn’t mind it although I found the boiling water brought out the stronger thyme flavor and reduced that hard-to-place fragrant smell that is so strong when you rub the leaves.
The Name Game: Here we go for another round of Name That Plant. I always try and check as many references as possible and cross-check for mistakes so I can give you the correct name but this one is going to take additional research. As mentioned above this plant is not short on common names and is regularly listed under two different Latin names, Coleus amboinicus and Plectranthus amboinicus. Some citations suggest that Coleus amboinicus is the old name, with all names, both Latin and common being interchangeable for the same plant. Others state that Coleus amboinicus is the Latin for broadleaf thyme which has larger leaves and that Plectranthus amboinicus is the Latin for Cuban oregano which has smaller leaves. I honestly can’t find any definitive answers and have decided to offer both options here. I personally lean towards the second option.
A constant stream of questions comes flooding through my inbox on a regular basis. I try and answer as many as I can but it’s quite an arduous task. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe I should start answering these questions publicly where everyone can benefit from the information or add their own thoughts and experiences to the mix. Please forgive me. I can be a little slow at times. This first question comes from an advice column I began writing last year for the now defunct and sorely lost Budget Living Magazine.
Question: I get orchids as gifts all the time but promptly kill them? How do I care for them?
Orchids have cultivated a reputation as difficult, but your plants are probably Phalaenopsis or moth orchids, a trendy gift-store variety that are surprisingly living room friendly.
The secret to indoor gardening is all about approximating a plant’s natural habitat in your home. Moth orchids are tree-dwelling jungle plants native to tropical regions where the air is steamy and warm. Setting up a tree in your living room is not necessary!
Grow It: Your plant will be comfortable away from direct light in a room with a steady temperature around 70º F. If you are comfortable so is your orchid. Grow your plant in a terra cotta pot with holes in the bottom and specially prepared orchid bark for good drainage. Give it a weekly 30 second dunk, pot and all, in a lukewarm bath. Allow the top of the soil to dry out between baths to avoid over-watering. Orchids thrive on lots of humidity. A simple humidity tray will do the job of fancy gadgetry. Line a leak-proof tray with an inch of aquarium gravel or river stones. Add water to just below the surface of the rocks and set the orchid pot on top without pushing the pot into the rocks. Constant “wet feet” can rot the roots — the trick is to provide a warm sauna rather than a long soak.
Go Further: Moth orchids are unique in that they can rebloom on the same spike. Most other orchids bloom only once per year. To encourage another round, cut dead flowers off just before the next joint on the stem. You should see new buds in 8-12 weeks. Once the flowers have gone, cut the entire stem off close to the plant base. Your plant will flower again before next spring. Enjoy!
For More Information
1. Wilma & Brian Tittershausen. Gardener’s Guide to Growing Orchids: A Complete Guide to Cultivation and Care, London: Anness Publishing Limited, 2001.
2. Orchid Lady
I recently discovered that what I have been identifying as ‘Deadly Nightshade’ since childhood is actually ‘Bittersweet Nightshade’ or ‘Woody Nightshade’ (Solanum dulcamara). I can see where the mistake could be made in terms of similarities in their foliage but both the flowers and berries are completely different. Deadly Nightshade’s Latin name is Atropa belladonna.
I know this might not seem like a big deal to some, but the plant I now know to be ‘Bittersweet Nightshade’ grows fairly rampant in these parts and growing up we were consistently warned against eating the tantalizing berries. Everyone I know has referred to it as ‘Deadly Nightshade‘ for as long as I can remember!
Further proof that common names can lead to confusion. While it might seem too chi-chi or difficult, it really does help to learn the botanical name too. And if you’re extra geeky you can look into the Latin and find out what the name says about the plant. I purchased “Gardener’s Latin” by Bill Neal a few months back and it has proven to be a really terrific and easy-to-follow beginner’s guide to understanding botanical names. Unfortunately, the book disappointedly omits ‘solanum’, a popular genus, but did include ‘dulcamara’ which you can probably guess translates to ‘bittersweet.’ However, if you’ve been reading this far and are interested, according to Botanical.com:
…Solanum is derived from Solor (I ease), and testifies to the medicinal power of this group of plants.
I closed up shop on my rooftop garden this weekend. The terra cotta containers are all brought indoors and stored away for the winter. I’ll admit that while I’m sad to see it end for another season, I have begun to realize that I really need the freed-up time and energy to focus on indoor plants. Winter’s reduced light intensity and the dry air created by electric baseboard heating make keeping plants with a delicate constitution a battle requiring strategy and commitment. While this is going to seem a little insane and labor-intensive, a big part of my strategy for combating the intensely dry air involves 1. placement and 2. showering.
Here’s how I do it:
Placement: Organize and locate your plants according to their required conditions. We keep a humidifier in our bedroom for our own sake but it just so happens to serve as a great environment for humidity-loving plants. Plants that require warm, moist conditions are kept in that room, while dry, desert plants are kept elsewhere. The bathroom is an obvious choice for humidity-loving plants however my bathroom is windowless. Because all the humidity and care in the world will not allow you to forgo rule #1: plants need light…. for photosynthesis and all that jive.
Showering: Unfortunately I have too many plants to keep everything that needs humidity in the bedroom. Despite the warm, moist air it is a bedroom, not a jungle, and a small one no-less. Additionally, some plants just can’t seem to get enough humidity in which case they are also subjected to the shower treatment. Once a month, sometimes more, I schlep the begonias, epiphytic cacti, and citrus trees into the bathroom where I place them all into the bathtub and run the shower at room-temperature for several minutes until each plant is thoroughly soaked. I then shake them gently to remove excess water and schlep them back to their permanent locations. You can choose to follow along with rainy days as a way to mimic nature and keep a cycle, however baseboard heating can be so drying the typical rules (watering only during sunny days, and avoiding night-time showers) can be thrown out the window. I often take this opportunity to inspect each plant for diseases or pests and check the soil to see if it needs topping up.
Some plants can not make it through the winter without grow lights to help them along during the dark days of winter, but I am convinced that regularly showering the citrus trees is the main reason they have made it alive through the winter months in time to go outside for the summer.
Today was a dry and mild reprieve from the awful cold, wet and sometimes windy late fall weather we’ve been enduring here in Southern Ontario — a good day to do some garden work. I have found frozen water in the trays underneath the containers on the roof a couple of times recently increasing my concern about getting everything cleaned up in time. You can pretty much forego cleaning up in-ground gardens (I know because I have) and expect minor plant loss, however container gardens in these parts can’t be ignored. The heaving caused by freezing and thawing conditions will crack and destroy terra cotta and some plastic containers. I’ve got A LOT of containers out there and would like to keep the collection I’ve cobbled together for as long as possible.
Here’s what I do to clean-up the container garden:
- Bring houseplants and plants that are still producing fruit indoors – I did this back in September well before the first frost.
- Harvest remaining produce – I found a couple of missed tomatoes, sweet potatoes, hot peppers, and a few small red onions.
- Remove all plant matter from terracotta and small containers – Cut them into manageable pieces and compost. If you don’t have a composter put them into garden waste bags for city composting.
- Remove stakes from containers and pile together.
- Dump soil from pots that will be stored away – I dump all of my soil into the large, plastic garbage cans that are used for growing tomatoes. They stay outside for the winter.
- Hardy perennials can be safely overwintered in large planter boxes – I sometimes add a blanket of mulch or dried branches, but they do just fine regardless. You can prune them back if breakage is an issue, but the plants in my boxes are so tough I leave the stems for added interest. The birds like to perch on the branches on mild winter days searching for seeds to munch on. They also collect dried grass bits for their nests come spring.
- Soak and scrub all terracotta pots and containers that are too fragile for outdoor storage – I wash mine in hot soapy water to which I add a couple of splashes of oxygenated bleach (aka hydrogen peroxide).
- Over-turn, stack, and store your pots somewhere sheltered such as a garage, basement, or shed. I don’t have any of those so I stack mine on shelves in our hallway and tuck the treasured containers away in the back of kitchen cupboards.
Related: Preparing Your Garden for Winter